COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – “Star Wars” arrived in theaters to inspire a budding scientist.
“I always wanted to look cool in a spaceship,” said Dimitri Klebe, the scientist who 40 years after the movie grins about his latest project.
It won’t fly but is nonetheless big and, in a way, can explore the galaxy. Most important, the Mobile Earth and Space Observatory, or MESO, can inspire a new generation of astronomy enthusiasts.
“I think it’s gonna be a game-changer,” said Klebe, a former Colorado College professor and longtime space educator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
For years he pushed the idea at the museum: A traveling classroom, a laboratory on wheels, would take pressure off exhibits that field-tripping school kids never had time to really understand. Students could experiment in a mobile observatory over the span of days. And it could reach remote schools out of a museum’s reach, students who don’t have the opportunity for such a field trip.
The idea never took at the museum, said Klebe, who was laid off in January after 14 years.
“That’s when I (thought), ‘OK, I’ve gotta devote my time to getting this ready. I’ve gotta get this ready for the eclipse.”
And there it was Tuesday in Colorado Springs, ready for the celestial event of a lifetime.
Locals came to envy Klebe’s creation before he left for Nebraska, one of 14 states that on Monday will be in the solar eclipse’s “path of totality.” He will be in the 26-foot 1976 GMC RV that he turned into MESO.
The back walls slide to reveal an open-air lab, with a telescope mount at its center. Toward the front, two 65-inch flat screens are posted to relay data. Red LED lights line the interior – lights that won’t deter night-time viewing.
Klebe, who lives in a house he built outside Woodland Park, is an astrophysicist who also happens to be a carpenter.
“He loves science, and he loves working with his hands,” said Geoff Lawrence, a former graduate school colleague whom Klebe recruited to ride along for MESO’s launch. “Every aspect of this vehicle is him. It’s a labor of love, the educational aspect and all this that he built so much of by hand. It’s perfect for him. It’s like the culmination of all the things he likes to do.”
For Klebe, an even greater culmination would come with an observatory atop Pikes Peak – an initiative he’s led for two decades with the National Space Science and Technology Institute, the Springs-based nonprofit.
Bob Sallee, the institute’s board chairman, said a special use permit will be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service within the next 60 days. Proposals for the observatory, which Sallee said would cost close to $2 million from grants and donations, have coincided with plans for the next Summit House. Construction on the complex is expected to begin next year.
“MESO is one element of the Pikes Peak observatory,” said Sallee, as the telescope at 14,115 feet would bounce views and data to the RV.
The organization’s mission is to advance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Klebe intends to drive MESO around Colorado, bound for schools interested in programs he has to offer.
But first, his “spaceship” has a mission in Nebraska.
He’ll join the Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) Experiment, the nationwide effort involving people spread across places where the moon will totally block out the sun. Klebe has one of the 68 identical telescopes that will be set up from Oregon to South Carolina. Totality will last about two minutes in every place under the path, and the goal is to collect images from every place possible, to show the scene over its entirety, beginning at 10:18 a.m. Pacific Time and ending at 2:47 p.m. Eastern Time.
It is a first-of-its kind experiment for a coast-to-coast phenomenon that hasn’t occurred in the U.S. in 99 years.
Total solar eclipses happen about every 18 months, commonly over areas of the globe that are difficult to reach, such as the Arctic or far seas. Klebe said he’s never seen one. He’s heard the gasps of people in videos. He’s heard tales from a late friend whose eclipse pilgrimages included the Galápagos Islands. “You just gotta see one,” the friend would say, falling short of explanation.
“I’m ready to see what it’s all about,” Klebe said.
He owes thanks in part to Agnes Busch, 90, who was on hand to see MESO’s take-off Tuesday. She lent the converted RV that she and her husband, Val, drove around the country. Val died in 2013.
He would have been proud to see it now, said Busch, who watched a soon-to-be first-grader tour MESO.
“It’s gonna have a good life,” Busch said.